David Denby

Buried Alive: Our Children and The Avalanche of Crud

VTR Date: August 6, 1996

David Denby discusses how to clean up media while upholding free speech.


GUEST: David Denby
VTR: 8/6/1996

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, and my guest today is David Denby, film critic for New York Magazine and a contributing editor for The New Yorker. Though I have read and long admired his film criticism, particularly in my role for 20 years as chairman of the film rating board. It is in his New Yorker incarnation that I have invited Mr. Denby here today. For the intellectual world seems to be literally buzzing with comments, all of them admiring, of course, about his annals of popular culture essay in the July 15th, 1996 New Yorker called “Buried Alive: Our Children and the Avalanche of Crud”. Nicely put. And Mr. Denby obviously struck a nerve here among the concerned parents, persons, insisting about the media that an active and engaged liberalism while rejecting censorship would ask for more regulation. Well, I’ve come to that conclusion and have been trying to write about it myself, but I would ask Mr. Denby whether that very thought doesn’t chill his Columbia College First Amendment sensitivities as it does mine.

DENBY: Well, I, I, as you said, I certainly don’t want any censorship whatsoever, but I’m looking at some way of asserting some kind of protection for children. I think they’re at the mercy of a marketplace that is increasingly pervasive and invasive of their little selves, and of course, we all grew up with a tremendous amount of popular culture. I spent hours watching television. But there’s so much more of it than there used to be, and each part of the systems sell the other parts. That is, the games sell the TV shows, the TV shows sell the movies, the movies sell the box of cereal, and the child is circumscribed, almost to the limits of his horizon, and I, I watch my own boys grow up this way. And they read a lot, they play a lot of basketball, and they probably do more than I did when I was 13 or 9, which is their respective ages. But they also spend a lot of time in front of screens. And they spend an awful lot of time within this world of popular culture. And I am looking for, perhaps, a little help from the government in changing some of the stuff that’s on the air. I think we recently had an agreement between broadcasters and the FCC for 3 hours of educational television a week, which will have the effect of pushing off at least some of the trash talk TV shows in the afternoon, negative effect, perhaps, but it’s a beginning.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you about that. You say it’s a beginning. Sure it is. It’s better to have some things added to the program schedule that are better rather than worse. But isn’t our problem, as you define it in this wonderful piece in The New Yorker, “buried alive”, that our kids are buried alive by such an avalanche of crud, and to say, here are three more hours of something positive, what about all the negative stuff that you describe so well?

DENBY: Yeah. The basic responsibility, of course, is ours…

HEFFNER: The parent.

DENBY: …and always will be, and always must be, should be. Ah, the tool of regulation would just help parents gain a little more control of the situation. But we’re in a very ambulant position, we parents. Particularly, I’m a movie critic, so I’m in the worst moral position to tell the kids to stop, turn off the TV, not rent a video, not go to the movies with their friends, yet I do it. Not always successfully. I try to keep them from seeing certain things, not always successfully, because they can see certain things at friends’ houses. I don’t have control, and I’m going to get into these weird pleading arguments. I don’t please, actually, I insist with my 13-year-old “I don’t want you to see this, and I can’t stop you from seeing it, but I would prefer if you didn’t see it” and he takes that fairly seriously. The 9-year-old I can control a little better, but at a certain point, they’re out of your control and, except for those parents who are almost authoritarian…I can’t do that. It would violate my sense of myself. What I want to do, I think, is get them to develop critical habits of mine. And that means watching television with them and discussing stuff, talking to them about movies. That’s easy, since I do it professionally. They’re eager to hear my opinion. I think eager to hear their parents’ opinions. At the same time, they maybe angry if you dislike something that they like, some silly comedy or action movie that you think is crass and stupid. They may be angry, but they hear it and you have to say your opinion. You have to stick to your guns.

HEFFNER: When you talk about sticking to your guns…

DENBY: Right.

HEFFNER: …you talk about parental responsibility. You’re talking about yourself as a very sophisticated media tracker. What about the rest of us?

DENBY: Well, everyone has…but the thing about movie criticism is that everyone does it. Everyone’s a movie critic. I’m always astonished…I’ll go to some party and my opinions will just be brushed aside by everyone. That’s a…fine…I find that entertaining. If you are a critic of music, you are deferred to, a critic of literature, but movies, no one defers to a movie critic, which is OK. Everyone, in a sense, is a consumer of media. I just happen to write down my opinions and publish them. So I’m not…I’m perhaps more aggressive than others about it but not different in kind. And I think parents should say what they think about this stuff and not be afraid of the kids’ anger, of course. And the kids hear what you have to say, and they process it, and then it comes popping out of them years later.

HEFFNER: My wife always insists that I would be surprised, and occasionally I am, as my sons are grown up now do reflect some of the parental input…

DENBY: Some, but not all.

HEFFNER: Not all…

DENBY: Right.

HEFFNER: …and it shouldn’t be all.

DENBY: It shouldn’t be all. They have to make their own way, hopefully, in this country. We all do.

HEFFNER: Yes, but wait a minute Mr. Denby. You’re saying they have to make their own way, and yet in this New Yorker piece you say “The constant atmosphere of selling creates a common ironic consciousness. The derisiveness of people in the know and what do they know? That everyone is out for themselves. That greed is what drives life forward.” You’re not talking, as you say here, about a one program, or another, or another, you’re talking about this avalanche of crud…

DENBY: The common…

HEFFNER: …the totality of it.

DENBY: …discourse of radio, of television…talk radio, certainly, of the language on the street…Yes, the whole cultural tone has changed, it seems to me, in the last 20 years a great deal. Everyone has said so, and I think everyone is right. And boy does that affect kids. It comes pouring in on them on all sides. Uh, and, and they, they begin to reproduce a lot of it.

HEFFNER: As a consequence, at the end of your piece, knowing that we’re waiting for you to say what you think should be done socially, ah, you say, as I quoted you before, “Active and engaged liberalism, while rejecting censorship, would encourage the breaking up of such vertically integrated culture monoliths such as Disney, Sony, and Time-Warner, it would ask for more regulation. The V-Chip is only the beginning.” But, uh, tell me please, I ask you pleadingly, because I’m trying to figure out for myself how when you start down that road, haven’t you abandoned that anti-censorship posture that you took at Columbia that you took all of your mature life.

DENBY: Well, I have to begin with parents asserting their own values, I think. That’s not censorship certainly, that’s a question of saying there is a hierarchy of values. Some things are more valuable than other things. The tendency of pop culture is to put everything on the same level. In a democratic society you can say some books are worth more than others, some positions are worth more than others, you’re going to be accused of elitism or of being a male chauvinist, or of being a racist or something and I think that…have to accept occasionally those kinds of criticisms if you feel you’re right. Now I’m not talking about books the way, the way William Bennett and the conservatives do, I mean, I’m just thinking of them as a bullworth of patriotism. But there are certain cultural values…religion, the Western classics, classical music, painting…the high arts have dreadfully lost their authority in the last 20 or 30 years. Schools are giving up now, teaching music and art because they don’t have the money. This is an unimaginable tragedy. Kids are going to grow up without ever seeing a play, or hearing live music. It’s all electronic, all television. They are all living in a secondary atmosphere rather than a primary atmosphere. That’s, that’s the most important thing for me, to try to restore some of that in the human, liberalist education that we grew up with. It’s so important.

HEFFNER: You’re saying restore some of that. That David Denby should restore it in his home. But you’re worried too, it would seem to me, about the world that surrounds your youngsters…

DENBY: Right.

HEFFNER: …and about the safety with which they can grow to maturity, and with which Alexander, Jeremy, and Zachary, my grandsons can grow to maturity. And if you leave it to each parent, in this great nation of ours with over a quarter of a billion in population, what kind of result will there be? What kind of culture will we have, and are you really willing to the consumer? Are you really willing to leave it up to you as a parent, to me as a grandparent?

DENBY: Well, the federal government can improve educational standards, they can re-fund public television. I mean, it’s absurd for the Republicans, on the one hand, to complain about Time-Warner and depravity in movies, and on the other hand pull the plug on public television. We’re trying to raise the standard of television and there’s a contradiction there that should be apparent to everyone.

HEFFNER: Yeah, look, I would agree with that but there’s something more basic, and I’ve tried to tease out of you what your answer is so I can see…

DENBY: Well, you know that I don’t want to see…I don’t want to see the government…I don’t want to see the government in culture as a progenitor of values. That I think has to come from the schools, from parents, journalism, from people like you but I don’t want the government…the government, I think, could say what the good life is, it’s a recent invention, as Professor Sandell says, that the government doesn’t say what the good life is. We did that up to perhaps the New Deal. Now we’ve become sort of value-free in the next 40 years. Clinton is moving in that direction, of saying “values matter.” There is a notion of the good life. But I don’t want them to say that we should listen to this kind of music or that kind of music. What I want them to do is to restore the power of educators. To teach kids…high standards…go ahead…

HEFFNER: Are you going to bite the bullet at some point and say what I have just said, David Denby critic, David Denby educated person, David Denby democrat, with a small “d”…all of that is all well and good, but when Bill Clinton says that the V-Chip is going to put back the control in parents’…the hands of parents where it belongs, control over what their children see or do, ah, come on now, as the kids would say, give me a break! They always own that power if they would exercise it, but what parents exercise it…David Denby and his wife do. All well and good. The world will be a better place for it.

DENBY: …they want to exercise it. Let’s see now if they’ll do it. The polls suggest that people are very offended by what their children see on television.

HEFFNER: But the polls could probably represent too, the fact that the same parents don’t exercise the kind of guidance that you want to exercise in your family, and the kids are all going to hell.

DENBY: Yeah, the parents are often caught up in the same popular culture. That’s the ambiguity of our situation. We love some of the stuff we’re telling kids that they’re not mature enough to see. But yes…you can say that to kids…”yes, I look at this stuff, you’re not old enough”, explain that…The kids are so media hip now they could turn that around on you and say “if I’m old enough to understand why I can’t see this thing, like “Pulp Fiction”, why can’t I see it”? Um, and you have to have…I know what the answer to that is but, see, all parents, I think, educated or not educated, this is not a class issue, have in their minds a certain schedule of when children should be exposed to certain things. When they should be exposed to sex, to violence, the notion that this world can be a dark and dirty place, at a certain time, when they’re ready for it, when they’re mature enough to handle it. Now this schedule is often violated. We assert…we want to assert control over it, and what drives me nuts at this point is that commerce is so powerful, these vertical integrated monoliths that you mention…are able to reach the kids with so many different aspects of the same product from so many different angles, that they’re taking out of parental hands that wonderful project of your having a notion when they should find out about these things. They’re always being egged to go a little bit farther, the media finds them at whatever level they are, sell them goods, and to push them a little further into violence, into sex, whatever. Not that this stuff is going to kill or destroy them, individually I don’t think they’re going to be hurt by a violent movie they see on television. It’s the totality of it, the sheer amount of it that’s going to surround them on all sides that I find offensive.

HEFFNER: Would you, would you call it an “avalanche of crud” in the face of, and buried alive by that avalanche, are you willing simply to say that “I still don’t believe in too much government action here, this is really the parents’ business”?

DENBY: Well, the problem is, as a critic, would I approve of government mandated art? Would I actually like it? Wouldn’t it, in fact, be bland, and genteel, and politically correct? Finally, don’t I trust the marketplace more than the government? And the answer is “yes”. Well, government sponsors in opera that would be fine. If they start to sponsor, if they started to say what was good or bad literature or theater, or movies, that’s, you know…

HEFFNER: Wait a minute! Wait a minute!

DENBY: …that’s the new way towards the socialist non-utopia

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute. This “trust the marketplace”…it seemed to me that what your article here said, and I suspect is what led me to cheer, and all those people I know who over the past month or so have said “Have you seen Denby’s article”? And I say “I’m going to do a piece with him”, they cheer that. Much of what you say here, it seems to me…it builds, builds up to the notion that, ah, well, this sentence and paragraph: “…and parents however discourage…will always try to impose that schedule…

DENBY: That schedule, yeah.

HEFFNER: …they consider it imposing their right. For parents, the early response is central to the poetry and moral charm of childhood. And to have to those intimate moments and pleasures pre-empted by someone’s marketing scheme is like receiving a blow to the chest”, and doggone it, you’re talking about that marketing scheme, and you’re talking about the fact that we’re covered with it.

DENBY: We live in a system called capitalism, and it’s very successful, and I approve of 98% of it, but the effect on children, I think is really awful. It’s turning them into consumers before they have the chance to be souls. They’re becoming consumers, not citizens. They’re inducted into a way of defining themselves through their consumer choices from the age of three. And…

HEFFNER: You know the thing that puzzles me is that we went to Columbia a generation or more apart. When I went to Columbia College, and I needed to do our second program today on your returning to Columbia College, and your great book, which you are just publishing now…There wasn’t that, somehow or other, that subjective necessity to say “I approve of 98% of the marketplace notion of capitalism”. Why, do you describe the result of it as so horrendous in terms of the most important things in your life, which is your children?

DENBY: Well, because the alternatives are more horrendous. …The state control, ah, art is well, well, ah, I’m not quite sure what you’re driving at, I’m not sure what the in-between…What I want is the re-imposition of some notion of cultural standards that we’ve lost, and not in William Bennett’s terms, either. I mean, I want, I want liberals to stand up for what they believe in. I want educators to have the power to educate. I want television stations not to be afraid to put on decent stuff and to try to…and movie companies try to figure out a way to sell better stuff, and the marketplace at the moment, is driving everything down. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can sell good things as well as bad. They’re simply taking the easiest way out. Cultural standards really have slipped. Everyone has said so, an incredible dumbing down. They made a lot of money earlier when they were not trying for the lowest common denominator. In other words, it is possible to reclaim a kind of idealism in the marketplace.

HEFFNER: Even in the midst of our burial by this avalanche? Because we’re talking about now, we’re not talking about then. We’re talking about something you describe so well and so feelingly in this piece. We’re talking about moving back to a pre-media dominated civilization.

DENBY: …no. It’s not going to happen.

HEFFNER: It’s not going to happen. When you say they made money before, I wouldn’t attribute it to the Reagan years alone, but to this whole notion that enough is not enough, only more and most is enough.

DENBY: Well, fortunately a lot of things fail also. Just this past summer we have seen a lot of commercially-minded movies that have flopped. For every gigantic success like “Independence Day” or “Twister” there are ten failures. And there is a healthy skepticism and cynicism in the public, which kids have also. It’s part of that notion that everything is disposable, that we’re…we mentioned before, and now the problem is to now turn them all into little critics, I guess. And to…some notion of “what is quality?” and I mean, the schools have to do it as well. That’s the…

HEFFNER: Still another thing for the schools to do. Because I think you’re conceding that the parents, unlike yourself and your wife, are not really equipped or attuned. You kind of posit a kind of built in…

DENBY: I don’t want to be hypocritical, let me just interrupt you here…all parents use the TV as a babysitter once in a while. There are many times when, you know, I want to read, I have to work, I just want some free time, and I let the kids watch something dumb on TV. I don’t interrupt them. I think it’s necessary to admit that. But we regulate the amount of TV they can watch. Some things…

HEFFNER: Do you think the President was accurate in saying that the V-Chip will give back the power over what children will see?

DENBY: I’m afraid the V-Chip will have a very small effect. I think there are going to be constant battles between parents and children as they try to figure out…the parents to set the remote…kids will try to find what the code is. But it will have…

HEFFNER: What do you mean will try to find the code…

DENBY: Their kids will find…

HEFFNER: Their kids will find it and set it more readily…

DENBY: …yeah, it will be a game, right, because the children are often better with these appliances than we are, but it will be a game for the children to try to outsmart the parents. But it will have, it will have some effect, because it’s there, and it will be on, and it will be a pain in the neck to try to change…children will try to get the parents to change it…if there’s a show they want to shut out…Children are very impatient. If something they want isn’t there, their attention will shift to something else.

HEFFNER: Of course you’re talking…

DENBY: …to other minor things…

HEFFNER: You’re talking as if we were back to even your Columbia College days, not even to mine.

DENBY: That’s over 30 years ago.

HEFFNER: Well, mine is over 50 years ago, so watch what you say! Seriously, you’re talking about a return to a time when parents were more involved, could be more involved. And perhaps more important, you’re talking about a time when we didn’t make reference to latch-key children. Ah…this is a nation now, and I’m not talking about poverty-level children alone, I’m talking about my children’s homes.

DENBY: The mothers are working, they’re not at home. So the children are watching TV all the time.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t that point still further in the direction of…something more…

DENBY: It does, and you have to get the kids to make certain promises to you, that they will do other things. And to find other activities for them, get them into sports, or get them into theater, dance, music. I mean, it’s a very difficult problem. You have to find active things for them to do.

HEFFNER: You know, during my 20 years as Chairman of the Film Ratings Board, George Kern had an expression that I really appreciated. He called these ratings an upper middle class conceit, that they had to do with upper middle class persons, who had the time, who had the resources to take the time further to involve themselves in choosing what their children might better do. And I wonder if that doesn’t give, doesn’t provide a key to much of this. We’re talking about upper middle class persons.

DENBY: Working class and lower middle class persons are often…you know, go to church a great deal and they’re deeply offended by a lot of this stuff. I’m not so sure about that…I’m not sure it’s a class phenomenon. I may be better equipped because I’m media hip, but people who have strong feelings about this will want to take action. And you’ve got to find alternatives for the kids, to the screens. That’s the solution. It’s very hard.

HEFFNER: Do you still prefer to maintain a “buyer beware” attitude rather than a “seller beware”…


HEFFNER: …attitude…

DENBY: Yah. I’m afraid so…(laughter)

HEFFNER: Why are you afraid so?

DENBY: Finally…you nailed me, I think. Finally, I do trust the marketplace more than the government. The marketplace can be very exhilarating. There are things that have been done in the movies in this country. I like “Pulp Fiction”. I don’t want my son to see it, but it’s hard to imagine that film being made by a state movie association, like in Eastern Europe in the 50s and 60s. The kinds of movies you get out of those cultures may be very serious but they’re not going to have that kind of wild, raging, liberating excitement. That is a marketplace phenomenon. I don’t want to lose it.

HEFFNER: So you still embrace that.

DENBY: Yeah. But you can’t make a law that allows the kind of art you like to be made, and disallow the kind of art you don’t like. I mean, it’s impossible. We suffer a kind of narcissistic wound when the children seem to reject our culture, like our books…I remember our delight when Max was listening to the radio and liked something by Chuck Berry….a Chuck Berry tune…we were so excited! Ah, but most of them will come through. They will find their own culture and they will begin to…when they’re older and not so resentful of us they will begin to embrace…I hope…

HEFFNER: All I can suggest to our viewers today is, as we end our program, and thank you,
David Denby, is that they read “Buried Alive: Our Children and the Avalanche of Crud”.

DENBY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thanks for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. Comments can also be sent to this address or via email to OpenMindTV@aol.com. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas & Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and from the corporate community, Ruder-Finn.